Tag Archives: Immigration

Undocumented migrants await Trump’s next move

Cafes, churches and playing fields are quieter than usual, as undocumented immigrants lay low amid the crackdown

NEW YORK // With such slogans as “Resiste” and “No Deportaciones” emblazoned on the walls, there is little doubt that La Morada, a restaurant in a gritty district of New York, is more than your average taco-serving Mexican diner.

Sure, their Oaxaca-style tortilla, mole sauce and steaming hot chocolate delight locals. But the Saavedra family that owns and runs the eatery sees itself as a Bronx bastion against a revived immigration crackdown under United States President Donald Trump.

“There’s obviously a very palpable fear in our community and we want to be ready for the worst-case scenario,” Marco Saavedra, 27, a college graduate who serves dishes while fighting his asylum claim to remain in the US, told Al Jazeera.

“We’re still waiting to see how Trump does it, through courts or executive action. But we’ve got to be ready.”

Business has slowed since Trump’s inauguration in January as Latinos watch their pennies in uncertain times, said his sister, Yajaira Saavedra, 28. The bistro’s weekly civic meetings and “know your rights” workshops are, however, busier than before.

La Morada – which means both “purple” and “abode” – is not alone. Many taquerias, tamale bars and other Latino comfort food joints across the US have gone quiet. So have football pitches and churches where Sunday services ring out in Spanish.

The reason is simple. Many undocumented immigrants are less eager to risk driving a car and being stopped by police for a broken taillight, only for such routine violations to escalate into deportation proceedings.

“People are being cautious and more conservative due to the uncertainty of the Trump era,” said Yajaira, who benefits from former-President Barack Obama’s policy to defer action against some undocumented child migrants.

Fifty days into office, Trump, a Republican, is coming good on campaign pledges to deport undocumented immigrants in the US and build a wall along its 3,200km southern border.

Department of Homeland Security memos call for the hiring of 10,000 more Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents and 5,000 more Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, and tougher rules on whom will be targeted.

They would include recent entrants, failed asylum seekers, convicts and those charged with crimes. Trump has also moved to strip federal funding from the so-called sanctuary cities and states that limit cooperation with deportation teams.

In December, Pew Research Center found that, when asked, 58 percent of Americans highlighted the importance of deporting undocumented immigrants, while 62 percent stressed that some should be allowed to legalise their status in the US.

Among immigration experts, Trump has many critics. Steven Choi, director of New York Immigration Coalition, a civic group, blasted a “draconian enforcement agenda that wrongfully characterises immigrants as criminals and terrorises our communities”.

Others highlight the cost of Trump’s plans. The 15,000 new immigration officers must all be paid; a wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico could cost $40bn, according to the MIT Technology Review.

The Center for American Progress found that ejecting all undocumented immigrants would hurt the US economy by $4.7 trillion over a decade. Deportations may even be pointless, says Pew, as more Mexicans leave the US than arrive nowadays.

In part, Trump is living up to pledges that won him last year’s election, particularly among white voters in parts of Pennsylvania, Michigan and other rust belt states who have watched factories shutter and an epidemic of opioid abuse ravage once-prosperous towns.

“The liberal elite calls for immigration policies, but they don’t see their impact on many of their fellow Americans,” Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a right-wing lobby group, told Al Jazeera.

“Their kids don’t go to the same schools and they don’t live in those neighbourhoods that have to handle an influx of illegal immigrants. The liberal elite is so removed from that reality, it’s like two different worlds.”

For Ray, Trump’s tough talk is already working. The number of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico to the US fell by 40 percent between January and February, according to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

“Obama talked about an amnesty and minimal immigration enforcement and the borders were swarmed,” said Ray. “Trump talks tough on border control, removing criminal aliens and ending sanctuary cities and border apprehensions drop like a hot potato. Words matter.”

Aside from securing the border, FAIR says US labour laws should be enforced. Once undocumented migrants are sacked by farm owners, eateries and other bosses in the US, they will head back to their motherlands to earn a crust.

Against this backdrop, many undocumented immigrants are readying for a knock on the door by deportation squads. Mexico’s 50 consulates in the US have been deluged with requests for birth certificates, passports and other forms of identification.

Some seek to regularise their status in the US, some undocumented parents want Mexican passports for US-born children in case they get caught in an ICE roundup and their whole family has to head south of the border with them.

Others are getting co-signers authorised on bank accounts and applying for co-guardianship of US-born children so that, if a family carer or breadwinner were deported, it would be easier for their partner to carry on, said Marco Saavedra.

The Cabrini Immigrant Services centre in downtown Manhattan has been overwhelmed. Legal aid slots on Mondays can accommodate 15 clients, but queues of 80 or more applicants mean scores are turned away, said manager Javier Ramirez-Baron.

“People feel attacked and afraid, so they want to see what they can do,” he said. “We’re helping them with their legal cases, their documents and preparing plans in case they’re stopped by police, so they’re ready for any scenario.”

Back in the South Bronx, the Saavedra family gets ready for the evening rush of orders of stuffed Poblano peppers and other deep-fried treats. Chefs, some of them undocumented, chop cactus salads and squeeze limes for fresh guacamole.

They typify the struggles of many Latinos in the US. The parents crossed the border without papers seeking work in the 1980s. Marco and Yajaira joined them years later, but only Yajaira benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme.

Their youngest daughter was born in the US and has citizenship.

Because of this, deportation proceedings against one family member would force difficult decisions upon the rest. This, of course, has been hanging over their heads for years, but the West Wing’s latest occupants give fresh cause for concern.

As far back as 1992, the Saavedras purchased a house outside Mexico City as a potential retirement home. An uncle takes care of the place, but, in recent months, they have bought more furniture to make it liveable.

“I don’t want to entertain it, but we think we’re resilient enough that if we must start another life in Mexico, we can,” said Marco, while musing about what jobs a US education could get him down south. “We always have to have a backup plan.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

Will the real Pocahontas please stand up?

The descendants of the prominent Native American shrug their shoulders at the anniversary of her death this week.

NEW YORK // She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

“For the Pamunkey tribe, it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn’t really amount to much,” says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

“We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it.”

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney’s 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children’s favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

A controversial past

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

This is not just because Pocahontas symbolises a union between native American tribes and colonisers that ultimately left the natives decimated. It is also because she offers a handy way for many white Americans to gloss over a brutal past and an unhappy present.

The anniversary of her death comes as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is losing a fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation, and US President Donald Trump uses the name “Pocahontas” as a term of abuse.

Raye Zaragoza, a musician descended from Arizona’s Akimel O’odham people, wrote a protest song, In The River, to support demonstrators in North Dakota and alert countrymen who, she says, neglect the struggles of Native Americans.

“They watch the romanticised Disney movie and dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween, but they don’t know the true story behind it or any of the real culture and customs,” Zaragoza says.

“They think that the abuse, colonisation and genocide against Native Americans are in the past. But it wasn’t only 400 years ago; it’s still happening today.”

The fact that scholars, Disney, Trump and the Pamunkey tell different Pocahontas stories is testament to the lack of records about her life. Even her name is elusive – she was also known as Matoaka, Amonute and, later, Rebecca.

Her most often-cited story is probably apocryphal. According to anecdote, Pocahontas, aged about 11, saved the life of a captive, John Smith, by placing her head over his as her father, the chief, raised his war club to execute the English colonist.

Scholars note that Smith only penned his romance-tinged version of events years after they happened. In reality, it may have been a stage-managed ruse aimed at adopting Smith and his fellow colonists as tribute-payers in the Powhatan confederacy.

Undisputed facts

But some facts about Pocahontas are not disputed. Colonists described the youth cart-wheeling outside their fort at Jamestown, living up to her nickname, Pocahontas, the “playful one”. She was involved in relations between colonists and natives that swung from friendly food-trading to open warfare and kidnapping.

She was kidnapped and held for a year, during which time she converted to Christianity. She took the name Rebecca and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower, in 1614. They had a son and travelled to England to promote the colony to investors at fancy London soirees.

The only known image of Pocahontas shows her decked out in a trendy lace collar, ostrich feathers and other fineries – the poster child of a “civilised savage” who advertised New World opportunities to everyone from plantation owners to Anglican ministers.

It was short-lived, however. On her way back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617. Back home, the Powhatan confederacy rapidly declined in the 1620s under the onslaught of English colonisation.

For Chief Gray, she is a character to whom many narratives can be attached, though her embrace of a foreign faith and culture that displaced her own people renders her peripheral to Pamunkey culture.

“Some people could say she was a victim, a hero, a traitor,” says Gray, who was elected chief in June 2015, one month before the tribe won federal recognition. “But there’s not enough documentation, we just don’t know what she was thinking back then.”

Her legacy among mainstream Americans is very different. Like the fable of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Disney-fied tale of inter-racial ardour and a harmony between two peoples offers a palatable version of early US history, says scholar James Horn.

“It’s a fantasy, and very much a white fantasy about two peoples uniting,” Horn, a British historian and president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, reflects.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the reality of repeated wars throughout not only the 17th century, but the establishment of a pattern of murders and dispossession in early Virginia that continued all the way down to the 19th century.”

By one estimate, the conquest of the Americas wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population. The guns and swords of Europeans were obvious causes, although smallpox and other bugs that accompanied them probably claimed many more lives.

Legacy of conquest

A legacy of marginalisation lives on in the US today. Some 5.2 million people – 1.7 percent of the US population – identified as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the most recent Census Bureau data from 2010. According to Pew Research Centre, one in four of them lived in poverty in 2012.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump tapped in to resentment among some whites that Native Americans unfairly benefit from tax-free petrol, casino-building rights and other breaks from Washington.

The Republican billionaire repeatedly mocked Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry by referring to her as “Pocahontas” while some of his rally crowds erupted in war whoops.

Since the inauguration, the White House web page on Native Americans has been removed and Trump has signed an executive order to clear the way for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.

While stoking fears of Middle Eastern refugees being terrorists, and of undocumented Mexican immigrants being “bad hombres”, scholar Jim Rice says Trump also feeds on antipathy towards Native Americans among his mostly-white fan base.

“There is a widespread and profound ignorance of Native Americans that often goes so far as to think that there are no legitimately native people left, because they drive cars and have cell phones,” Rice, from Tufts University, says.

“Many people feel that Native Americans have had centuries to get over it and should no longer have what are often termed as special privileges, but are in fact constitutional or treaty rights.”

In England, the Pocahontas story is different once again.

The life-size bronze statue of Pocahontas at St George’s church in Gravesend has had its entry on the national heritage list updated and the British Library hosted a “packed day” of screenings and debates on March 18.

For British writer Kieran Knowles, whose play, Gravesend, will be read aloud there on the anniversary, the four-century mark is a rare opportunity to spotlight a run-down town of “just pound stores and charity shops all the way down”, he says.

It is also worth noting that the Pamunkey were not always so aloof about Pocahontas. Chief Gray himself spoke in London about how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the tribe promoted an already-popular character to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

But that has given way to more recent efforts to “reinvigorate the language” and look back before Pocahontas to revive the pottery, shad fishing, hunting and farming skills that “have been lost from 500 years or so ago”, Gray explains.

By downplaying Pocahontas, the Pamunkey are “pushing back on the over-estimation of her importance by non-native people”, says Rice.

For him, Pocahontas is an ideal character for the nexus between historical fact, belief and present-day storytelling. Four centuries after her death, it seems that we have not yet exhausted the Pocahontas story trove.

“If we knew a little less about her, there wouldn’t be enough purchase for us to really talk and think about her so much,” Rice says. “But if we knew any more about her, we couldn’t so readily project our own concerns and preconceptions on to her.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.